On a Kentucky Train Track, a Union Protest without the Union

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

Last month, on July 1, coal mining industry titan Blackjewel collapsed into bankruptcy. On July 29, about twenty miners who had been previously employed by Blackjewel took up residence on the train tracks in Cumberland, Kentucky. Seems when Blackjewel’s employees had gone to cash their final paychecks, they were slammed with overdraft and check-bouncing fees. The multi-billion dollar company had written bad checks to 350 miners in Cumberland alone, checks that left workers unable to pay utility bills or buy groceries. In protest, these same workers are now blocking a track that exclusively carries coal trains, and they’re demanding back pay to the tune of nearly five million dollars total. One train is loaded and sitting on that track, blocked from moving to its next location by the protest encampment.

Cumberland is in Harlan County, a region that is no stranger to labor protests. In the 1920s, Harlan County miners were among the first who attempted to unionize. Those efforts were countered with violence, including a 1931 labor strike that ended with the deaths of miners. Again in the 1970s, workers in Harlan County went on strike to protest unfair working conditions and underpayment. One year-long strike resulted in the shooting death of a miner and injuries to two more, and it ended with a new, fairer contract.

Today’s protest has grown from about twenty miners, often standing on the tracks alone as they take turns blocking the path of ever-present coal trains, to dozens of workers and their allies sitting in shifts of eight to ten hours to ensure continuous coverage. The local community has come together to bring first aid kits, solar showers, water, ice, and, in the true spirit of Kentucky, beer and cornhole boards to those protesting. The protest has been joined by retired union workers, community members, laborers from other Blackjewel mining sites, and other infuriated residents.

While the organizing happening in eastern Kentucky is reminiscent of the oft-idealized union-led protests of yesteryear, that’s not quite the case. Deceptively named “right-to-work” legislation now on the books in twenty-eight states, claims to protect workers from being forced to join a union. In reality, these new laws are designed to protect companies from exactly the kind of protest happening on the Kentucky train tracks right now. Heralded as protecting workers’ rights, right-to-work legislation prohibits union security agreements between companies and labor unions. In essence, employees in unionized workplaces cannot negotiate contracts that require all workers who benefit from a collective bargaining agreement to financially contribute to that union representation. This has created a massive free-rider problem, in which unions are struggling to continue to exist to carry out those negotiations as the number of dues-paying members continues to plummet.

By making it harder for workers to form and join unions, corporate interests keep the scales tipped in their favor. Without an effective union, it’s nearly impossible to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, or working conditions. Due to these long-term union-busting efforts, by 2017 there was not a single unionized miner in Harlan County, a trend matched (albeit to lesser extremes) around the country.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (R) said in July that the state’s Department of Labor will open an investigation, promising to “use every available tool within Kentucky’s statutory authority to help our hardworking miners and their families receive financial restitution.” In January 2017, his first month in office, Bevin signed the state’s right-to-work legislation into law, promising that it would “mean incredible new opportunities for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.” Instead, it has meant a company feels no legal or moral reservations as they close up shop and abandon the very people who have given their bodies in service to corporate profit and greed.

For now, workers will remain on the tracks, holding signs declaring their intention: “No pay, we stay.”